The Damned

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 40 (v.1)

Submitted: July 25, 2013

Reads: 180

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 25, 2013







Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 15th August 1230


The whole family attended Will’s funeral, their numbers swelled by the presence of Isabel’s growing brood of nieces. Katerina’s tears fell freely as their brother’s body was interred in the abbey, there to rest beside their father for eternity, and grief had never looked so becoming. But her mother did not shed a single tear, staring blankly ahead throughout the service. She stood apart from everybody else, her grief isolating her.

When they returned to Pompocali Isabel hastily excused herself. A great feast had been prepared, but she could not stomach the thought of food. She felt hollow and empty, and no amount of fine wine and good company could fill the gap Will had left behind. She could feel the scar where her heart had been ripped from her chest every morning when she woke, every afternoon, every evening. It was a desolate place, where her brother had lived, and her father. She tried to fill it with the nieces who clamoured to sit on her knee, with Felicia’s kisses and Sophia’s embraces, but no amount of affection could sate her. She wanted to be loved, but only if it came from him. She didn’t think the torn edges would ever be able to stitch themselves together again. 

The countess was sitting in the empty solar when Isabel entered, staring into the barren hearth. The room was warm and oppressive, the summer heat suffocating, though the sun barely shone through the thick clouds. But the discomfort she always felt around her mother was worse.

Lady Lynessa had been grieving since Isabel’s father had died. Long years had passed, but still she mourned him with the unstinting devotion of one whose grief was fresh enough to believe that life could not go on without the one she loved. She lingered in the castle that had been his, grieving, muttering from time to time, half-mad now.

Isabel marvelled that her mother had outlived her strong, beautiful brother. Lady Lynessa had always been delicate, fragile. She seemed made of gossamer, so frail that the gentlest breeze would blow her away. But her brother, he had been so vital and alive. It was a cruel jape that one who had hungered to live could have been so easily defeated, whilst one who yearned for death could linger on.

When last she had seen her mother, her face had been haunted with grief, but she was still so breathtakingly lovely that Isabel had wondered how her father could have desired anyone more than the wife who grieved for him with such dramatic fervour. But no longer could she appreciate her beauty. Despite the heat, her mother sat huddled beneath a pile of furs, staring into the empty fireplace. Her eyes were dim and cloudy, and her mouth trembled as Isabel took the seat opposite her. The countess’ eyes frightened her, for it was as if the soul behind them had departed the living body. Was it her mother, now, or only a ghost?

Though she did not acknowledge Isabel, the countess began to speak, her voice a dull monotone, as cold and dead as her son. “I am not heartless. I just don’t have any tears left to cry. I can see them sometimes, my beautiful darlings, my lovely Lucia and little Matilda. William is with them too now. My angels.

“I was only fifteen when Lucia was born, still a child really, though I loved her more than anything in the world. I was sure that boys would follow, and so I was content with my little girl. Her hands and feet were so tiny, but so perfect. I would spend hours just watching her sleep. I have her little clothes, and I take them out sometimes, and smell them. The baby scent is still there, though it’s faint now. I don’t need it; I’ll never forget that sweet perfume. Her whole head used to fit in the palm of my hand.” Her mother looked at her pale hands, resting in her lap, as if she could see her infant daughter cradled there. But they were not made to be gentle anymore; the nails were long and curved, claw-like, weapons to rake a man’s skin.

The countess’ eyes flickered to Isabel, her mind still far away. “You remind me so much of her. She had your copper curls, and those strange silver eyes. She was a perfect mixture of the two of us, undeniable evidence of our love. And when I was scared, when he was out whoring and I thought that he didn’t love me anymore and he would never come back, I would look at her and I knew that if something so perfect could be born out of our love, then what we had must be special. He would always come back to me. His other women would come and go, but I was the only one who could keep him.

“And then, when she grew bigger, she was so very beautiful. But I didn’t really know what love was until they took her away from me, because it was like a physical pain. She was still there though. Even if she wasn’t with me, I knew that she was out there. She was living in some other woman’s house, and she didn’t have her mother there to love her, but it wasn’t forever.

“It made me realise how much love hurts. Love wounds your soul. Your father tortured me with his lies and his lust. He hurt me so many times. My love for him was like a festering wound, slowly destroying me.” Her mother took a deep, trembling gasp and hunched forwards, her arms cradling her body, as if the old wound still pained her.

Isabel was astonished; her mother had never spoken so many words to her.

The countess lifted her eyes from the floor to study Isabel, a frown creasing her forehead. Her hair fell across her face, tangled and uncombed, no longer a mane of spun gold, and she looked at her daughter from between the knots and snarls, as furtive as a fox waiting to snatch a chicken from the coop. When Isabel held her stare, her mother glanced out of the window, as if she could bear to look at her no longer. “My baby died the year before you were born. All I could think was why did it have to be her? It should have been me. No woman should outlive their child; it’s unnatural. Lucia was only nineteen.

“I couldn’t bring myself to look at any of you, because every time I did I saw her face staring back at me, and it hurt too much. I had seen her die: seen those cold, dead eyes fixed on me; seen the blood on the stones. You were all dead things too. When you were born, you were the spitting image of her, and I couldn’t bear to have you near me. I knew that I would grow to love you, and then I would have to lose you too. I knew, Isabel. I’d seen your face before - seen your death before.”

Isabel felt sick. She closed her eyes – and she saw a blue-eyed man, his hands tightening around her throat; a winter rose withering and dying as death touched its petals; the body of a red-haired woman lying on the floor, Tristan FitzAlan crouched over her. Isabel knew that the woman was her. The woman had always been her. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

But her mother didn’t hear her. The countess wasn’t finished. “Then they took my pretty little Matilda too. I thought that nothing could hurt me anymore, for I had no heart left to ache, nor tears to cry. But it was just as painful. She was even younger than Lucia, just eighteen. I knew that I would never hear her laughter again, or stroke her soft curls.

“I saw it happening, Isabel. Hundreds of times I had to watch them die. Maybe I imagined it into being. I see things and then they happen. Maybe I see the things that the devil inside of me yearns for. I’m cursed, my sweet daughter. Everyone I love is struck down. But you’re safe, pretty one. I’ve made a point of never caring for you. I had you taken away from me, didn’t I? I made sure that you could not come anywhere near me. The boys were safe, though, always safe, and the others. I don’t dream of them. They’re not like you and I, so I let myself love them.

“And now your father is gone. I killed him. I didn’t mean to, but I did.” She looked at Isabel, her gaze stricken. “I should have allowed him to be loved, even if I couldn’t be,” she whispered.

And Isabel knew that her mother had seen his death, had dreamed the same dreams that she had.

“And now your brother is dead, God rest his soul, and I cannot help thinking that his death is an act of punishment. I spurned the gifts I was given, and so they stole him away without warning. Oh, they let me see, Isabel, but too late. It makes me wonder which one of you is next.” Her mother’s lips trembled, and the tears came then. “I should have kept him beside me, instead of letting your father send him away. I was a fool, pretty one; I did not need to glimpse the future to know what was in his. I should have raised him myself, and cooled his ambition before it consumed him. He would have lived then.”

Isabel shook her head. “Oh, mother, did you know your son at all? You could not have prevented this. If you set a fence around him, he would have broken out. He lived his life as if it was one long hunt, and his quarry was any man who stood in the way of his ambition.”

“Such a waste, God rest his soul.” Her mother crossed herself and her voice shook. “And I didn’t see it. I couldn’t stop it. How vulnerable you all are. Who knows when death will strike?” The countess rocked backwards and forwards as sobs racked her body.

Isabel didn’t know what to do. She had never touched her mother: Lynessa hadn’t been there to dry her tears, or kiss her goodnight. She could not comfort her, for she was the mother that hated her; the mother who had seen her death but never warned her of her fate; the mother who had known Isabel’s destiny and never tried to save her from it.

She turned to walk away, to abandon her mother when she most needed her, but the countess lashed out, her wasted fingers twining themselves around Isabel’s wrist. Her talon nails dug into her skin, drawing blood. There was a trace of silver, now, in those great blue eyes as they burned into hers. “Remember, Isabel, that the hottest fires burn out the quickest.”

“Let go of me,” Isabel hissed.

The countess’ porcelain hand dropped away, and she laughed, eyes narrowed. “You have fire in your blood, all of you. His blood. It needs to be stoked, but it takes too much. It destroys everything around it to feed its hunger, and then finally it consumes itself. Will had a touch of it, Katerina too much, and I see it in you, as well. It will bring them both to an early grave, and burn the rest of you with them.”

“Father had fire,” Isabel stated. Her tone was defiant, as if such a truth negatived the awful implications of her mother’s words.

Her mother smiled, and it terrified Isabel. She sat as still as an ice sculpture, her tangled hair falling across her shoulders, her blue eyes chilling. She spoke with a voice which knew too much. “Your father had fire, and beauty, and ambition, and they lured him into an early grave. He wanted everything too much, too hotly. Don’t seek to be like him, pretty one; don’t seek to love as he loved.”

“You’re mad,” Isabel said coldly. And she wanted to believe that it were entirely true. “You do not know what you are saying.”

Her mother stood and walked to the window, the furs falling from her slender shoulders. She was garbed in a gown of black velvet with a rope of pearls around her milk-white neck, so delicate and insubstantial that she appeared more wraith than woman. Yet she was lovely still, her beauty ethereal. “You name me mad because my words frighten you. But you know that they are true, that I must lose you too.” She turned and met Isabel’s eyes, daring her to lie again. Her gaze was so very blue, but she saw the silver there now.

It seemed a hundred years before the countess dropped her gaze and spoke. She swept down on Isabel, her long skirts trailing after her. For an instant, Isabel feared that her mother would hit her, but she only flapped her hands impatiently. “Go now. I do not wish to think upon it.”

Isabel curtsied stiffly. “As you wish, lady mother.”

She half-fled the room, walking as fast as her legs would let her without breaking into a run. She walked until her world narrowed down to her aching legs and her own breath, hard and heavy. She did not think, not at first. There was no need of thought; the walls of Pompocali were as familiar to her as Will’s face had once been. But then she stopped, for it was there that her brother had once hidden, only to pop out and frighten her with awful, unearthly howls. The place was his, filled with memories of him. She could not be there without seeing him, thinking of him, remembering him. It was Will’s place, not hers. How could she live there without him?

But he was gone. And she was alone. She was lost, naught but a lonely stranger. All those she had known and loved with all her heart were utterly removed from her. She would never see her father and brother alive again, nor Ayleth. They were dead – irrevocably dead. They were gone from her, separated by death, and there was nothing she could do about it. All that was left to her was a madwoman who spoke of her death, and she wondered - for the first time, she truly wondered – whether she would ever see them again. Whether there was any immortality to be found in death. Or whether they were simply gone from her. She wanted to scream and wail and weep, but it seemed that there was nothing left inside of her now, and no one left in her world to hear her cries.

Then there was a hand on Isabel’s arm, and a woman stood beside her, ancient and haggard, as if her melancholic thoughts had summoned her. It seemed a miracle that a withered, decaying body had the strength to support such old bones. How could such a one live when her brother was dead?

“Lady Isabel?”

She nodded, snatching her arm away, for she did not recognise the gnarled little creature. “Who are you?”

“Only a humble servant, little mistress. Your lady mother sent me after you.”

“Your name,” Isabel demanded.

The crone’s eyes fixed on her, assessing her. She smiled, revealing stumps of rotted teeth. “Muriel. You do not know me, but I know you. Mine was the first face you saw when you entered this world. Mine were the first arms to cradle you.”

And what a fearful first impression she must have made, Isabel thought. “Leave me,” she commanded. Her voice was too sharp, but she cared no longer.

The withered little creature paid her no heed. “My little countess is worried, my lady, and she charged me with comforting you. How can I leave you when there is such sadness in those silver eyes?”

Isabel pulled her long auburn hair, woven into an elaborate braid, across her shoulder and twined the ends around her fingers. She looked at the woman coldly. “Tell her that you found me with a smile on my face and laughter on my lips, if it pleases you. I do not care, so long as you leave me.”

The crone’s wrinkled mouth twitched, her lips thinning. “She is not fool enough to believe such lies.”

“She is mad,” Isabel spat. “Do madness and foolishness not belong hand-in-hand?”

Muriel’s eyes flashed. Torch flames fluttered like pennons along the walls, and their light seemed to catch in those dark depths, lending their fire to her gaze. Though she was old and frail, she seemed frightening now. “Have a care, Lady Isabel. You begin to sound as cruel as your lord father. Grief can derange even the strongest and most disciplined of minds, and your lady mother was never that. She was a sweet, gentle lady, but she was ever sensitive and easily upset, as highly strung as beautiful, delicate Felicia. The death of Lucia destroyed her, and the weight of her grief when she lost Matilda so soon after was simply too heavy a burden for such slender shoulders to bear. Should we condemn her for such a crime?”

Isabel felt uncertain now. The woman had caught her off-balance; she had never expected to feel pity for her mother stirring in her stomach. “Who are you?”  she repeated.

Muriel smiled sadly. “I am the woman who raised your mother. I am the one who has loved her every day of her life, and who has cared for her more than any other. I know her so much better than you, young mistress.”

“Then you must know that she is a fool. You know how she loved my father.”

The old woman stared at her for a long time, cold with anger. “Is it foolish to see the good in men? My lady was too trusting for this world, perhaps, but there was something beautiful in that. She could not see the evil in men, only the good. Lord William sang her a sweet song, and she mistook that for his nature. But there was always something hard and cold inside of him, though it seemed that it was diminished when he stood beside her.”

“Do not speak of my father as if he were worth less than her,” Isabel said through tight lips.

The woman’s dark stare met hers, challenging her. “Why not? Do you wish me to lie to you? Yours is a family dynasty with blood on their hands and murder in their hearts, my lady. Her soul bears no such taint.”

Isabel laughed, as Katerina had taught her to. She schooled her face into a mask, still and pale, betraying nothing: no remorse at shattering an old woman’s illusions; no sadness for the woman her mother had been, though it was a woman she could so easily pity. “You think that she is still the gentle girl you knew, but you are wrong. She is by turns proud, cruel, fearful, dreamy, reckless, timid, stubborn, vain, and, above all, uncaring.”

The old woman stared into the shadows, brooding. “You father didn’t think so. For a time, Lynessa thawed the ice inside of his heart. That’s how good she was.”

“Perhaps my father lusted after her, for she is beautiful. But it would have been naught but a game to him, to win her favour. He never loved her.”

The crone’s face was a study in contempt. “What do you know of the past, child? Of love? He did. He always loved her. She was his great love. It was Lynessa, always Lynessa, the woman who had given him everything. He never loved his whore as he had loved her, but nor did he give as much of himself to her. He loved my little countess every day of their lives together, but after Lucia he couldn’t bear to be near her. Lynessa gave him a perfect family, the promise of a perfect life, and then they lost it, and he knew that she blamed him.”

“How could my mother blame him? My father didn’t cause my sister’s death.”

The woman’s gnarled fingers brushed Isabel’s cheek, as if her naivety were something to be pitied.

Isabel was sad, suddenly, that no one had seen naivety in her for the longest time. She knew too much. She was too cynical. It seemed that there was nothing that the world would leave her innocent of.

The woman’s hand dropped to her side. “But he did not prevent it either, even though your mother warned him. He put his ambition before his love of Lucia.”

“The countess could not have known what would happen to my sister,” Isabel protested.

She saw sadness in the woman’s eyes. Muriel stared at her old hands, so withered and frail. “God gives many gifts, my lady. Your mother sees what cannot be seen and knows what is unknowable to the unsighted mortals around her. Her gift brings her nothing but pain. She alone knew the outcome of her husband’s many battles, and she alone knows the fate of each of the children born of her womb. Her lips spill riddles, and sometimes her prophecies are not even clear to her.”

“It is not possible.”

“Isn’t it?” Muriel answered, shoulders slumped, already beginning to turn away from her. “Is a truth denied so easily changed?” Her voice was bitter. “Maybe you could tell your mother so and make all of the pain and the guilt she feels go away; maybe you could restore to me the child I loved.”

“Wait,” Isabel pleaded. “She told me that I am fated to die young.”

The crone’s expression was cold. “Why are you worried? You don’t believe her.”

“I’m frightened,” Isabel whispered.

The old woman turned to look at her, a sly smile on her lips. She cocked her head, appraising her with a gimlet gaze. “Ahh, so you have the gift too. I suspect that must be why you are so often in her dreams.”

Isabel swallowed, struggling to compose herself. She clasped her hands to stop them from shaking. “Did Lucia have it? And Matilda? I see them in my dreams, but not my brother.”

Muriel nodded. “It seems to run in the female line. Felicia has a touch of it too, and your mother’s sister.”

Isabel’s hands were slick with sweat. She pulled them apart and pressed her palms against the wall, her head resting against the cool stone. She closed her eyes, not daring to look at the old woman as she asked the question which terrified her most of all. “Will I be like her? Will it send me mad?”

The woman’s voice was gentle. “I do not have your mother’s gift, but I have the wisdom of old age, and that is not so very different, my lady. I think that you will be fine.”

She placed her hand on Isabel’s arm, demanding her attention. She opened her eyes to meet the woman’s beady gaze.

“There are some people who can’t or won’t withstand the trials of life, and so it is with your mother. But you are stronger than her, I can see it.”

“Will strength save me?”

Muriel looked at her for a long time before she answered. “The future is not set in stone, Lady Isabel. Remember that. God gives each of us our little gifts and talents, and it is meant for us to use them - I always told your lady mother so. Use it to make the right decisions. Use it to save yourself, if you can.”

© Copyright 2020 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.


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